Penn State NU Musical Theatre Summer Festival presents ‘Deep Water Ballad’

Penn State NU Musical Theatre Summer Festival will perform “Deep Water Ballad” during Arts Fest.
Penn State NU Musical Theatre Summer Festival will perform “Deep Water Ballad” during Arts Fest. Photo provided

In association with the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, the Penn State NU Musical Theatre Summer Festival will present a story of love and loss in a West Virginia mining town with the musical, “Deep Water Ballad,” at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center.

The town of Deep Water, W.V., is on the brink of enormous change. After a terrible mining accident leaves three dead, politicians and profiteers want to revolutionize the local coal industry. Their answer is surface mining, aptly nicknamed “mountaintop removal” by residents of the region. Daniel Dawson, a young coal miner, and Grace Milbach, a would-be model, are brought together by tragedy. They must face the hard facts of their changing world and hold fast to each other amid the scandal, lies and environmental ruin raging around them. The choices they make today will forever change the scope of their lives and the fate of their community.

Chris Rayis is the composer and lyricist for the sung portions of “Deep Water Ballad,” in partnership with the show’s book writer, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman. The original story, heavily influenced by the documentary “Harlan County, USA,” was conceived by Rayis and Waterbury-Tieman while they were in residence at the Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville, Tenn., in 2012. While driving through the mountains and listening to Johnny Cash, the idea and general storyline came quite quickly, they said. After throwing around some ideas, they drew up their first synopsis.

“The story seemed like one we both wanted to tell — something that affected both of our personal histories,” Rayis said. “The plot has changed considerably, but the heart of the story — the preservation of beauty — remains the same.”

An Ohioan in every sense, Rayis was born in a small town, raised in a smaller one, and grew up in the relative metropolis of Columbus. His family’s move to the capital city when he was 10 years old allowed him to grow up in an emerging arts scene in the city and an already well-established theater education in the public schools. Like so many of his peers, he fell in love with theater as a high school performer. An accomplished pianist, composer and director, Rayis holds an MFA in music directing for the musical theater from Penn State and a bachelor’s of music degree in composition from Belmont University in Nashville.

“My collegiate education at Belmont University was enormously influential, as I wrote my first musical there under the instruction of — and surrounded by — the best creative minds in the state,” Rayis said. “I am enormously influenced by the songwriting of Fernando Ortega and Sara Groves, and also by the instruction and creative genius of my composition teacher, the opera composer, Ricky Ian Gordon.”

An accomplished fiddle and violin player, and singer and actor, Waterbury-Tieman was born in Athens, Ga., and grew up in Lexington, Ky. He did his college studies at Belmont University in Nashville, earning a bachelor of music degree in musical theater.

“As a fiddle player, I have always been influenced by bluegrass and folk music styles,” he said. “I think growing up in the South gave me a passion for telling southern stories as well.”

The story of the musical focuses on the aftermath of a catastrophic mining accident near Deep Water. As the world begins to change, the audience follows the transformations through the eyes of Grace, the daughter of one of the deceased miners, and Daniel, a young local miner.

“From the depths of the earth to the center of Manhattan, the story serves as a morality play, focusing on natural beauty and mankind’s role in destroying it,” Rayis said. “The message of this story is that we are given miracles of beauty, goodness and kindness in this world — that all attempts to own or enhance such qualities will end in despair in destruction.”

Waterbury-Tieman believes that the message of this story and of any piece of art is up to the audience member to decide, but said he hopes that the audience will recognize themes of the plight of poverty and environmental ruin that are being wrought in the more rural mountain parts of our country.

“I hope they will come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the working class culture and struggles of the Appalachian region. We hope to immerse them in music, song and story that reflects and honors mountain culture,” he said.

An Arts Fest button is required for performances of “Deep Water Ballad.”


  • What: Penn State NU Musical Theatre’s “Deep Water Ballad”
  • When: 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. July 15 and July 16
  • Where: Penn State Downtown Theatre Center, 146 S. Allen St., State College
  • Info: www.numusicals.psu.edu